I’m currently reading Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and oh my god, what a good book it is! I’ve read six of the 14 essays so far, and while they aren’t all at the same level of fabulousness, they are all pretty close. I just finished an essay on Michael Jackson, which sent me off to watch this video and appreciate him in a way I never have before. The first essay is on a Christian Rock festival, which he captures perfectly in all its weirdness, and there are also essays on Hurricane Katrina (with a haunting ending), his brother’s near-death experience, and the TV show The Real World. This last essay is written in a funny, hyped-up, super-informal tone befitting the subject:
I’d suspected there were puppeteers involved in The Real World, invisibly instigating “drama,” but to think that the network had gone for it like that and hired a shrink? One who, as the kids went on to assure me, was involved not only in manipulating the cast during shooting but also in the casting process itself? And she’s worked on other shows? This explained so much, about The Real World, about all of it. When I wrote that business earlier about how the casting people have made the shows crazier and crazier, I didn’t know I was right about any of that! This person is an unacknowledged legislator of the real world. Turns out Dr. Laura is a psychologist, not a psychiatrist, which is better, when you think about it, because psychologists don’t have to take the Hippocratic oath, and she’s definitely, definitely done some harm. No chance I was going to call her.
Or there’s this somewhat more serious passage from the same essay (don’t miss the last line):
People hate these shows, but their hatred smacks of denial. It’s all there, all the old American grotesques, the test-tube babies of Whitman and Poe, and great gauntlet of doubtless eyes, big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification, muttering dark prayers, calling on God to strike down those who would fuck with their money, their cash, and always knowing, always preaching. Using weird phrases that nobody uses, except everybody uses them now. Constantly talking about “goals.” Throwing carbonic acid on our castmates because they used our special cup and then calling our mom to say, in a baby voice, “People don’t get me here.” Walking around half-naked, with a butcher knife behind our backs. Telling it like it is y’all (what-what). And never passive-aggressive, no. Saying it straight to your face. But crying … My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows of the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them — too many shows and too many people on the shows — for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.
Those are good passages, but not even the best I’ve found, just the ones I read recently. Sullivan’s voice is amazing. I love discovering a new great essayist.